June 2, 2011 / 12:26 PM / in 7 years

Q+A: Yucca Mountain nuclear waste controversy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers want to revive a planned underground nuclear waste deposit that was scrapped by the Obama administration, stirring up the decades-long controversy surrounding Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The crisis at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant following the March earthquake and tsunami revived the decades-old U.S. debate about how to safely store spent nuclear fuel.

President Barack Obama’s “blue ribbon commission” is slated to firm up draft recommendations on storage options by July 29, with a deadline for a final report in January.

Here are some questions and answers related to the debate over Yucca Mountain:

WHAT IS YUCCA MOUNTAIN?

The site, 90 miles from Las Vegas, was first studied for a nuclear waste storage facility in the 1970s. Congress wanted a secure place to bury spent nuclear fuel, which can stay radioactive for thousands of years.

In 1982, Congress passed a law to establish a permanent underground storage facility by the mid-1990s. The act also added a fee to electric bills to help pay for the site. The law was later amended to identify Yucca Mountain as the only site for consideration.

In 2002, President George W. Bush approved the Yucca Mountain dump site and in 2008 the Energy Department submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build it. (For the application click on r.reuters.com/waj88r)

Since 1983, the government has spent almost $15 billion assessing Yucca Mountain as a place to store waste in the ground, collecting $9.5 billion of that from electric bills, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report.

WHO OPPOSES THE PROJECT?

Nevada residents and politicians worry the facility could pollute water and reduce tourism, and say the dump is too near earthquake fault lines. They also say shipping nuclear waste across the country would create targets for terrorists.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, Democratic leader in the Senate, has never liked the idea. In 2006 he said: “I am convinced the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump will never be built because the project is mired in scientific, safety and technical problems.”

WHO SUPPORTS THIS PROJECT?

The nuclear industry and experts want a long-term, safer dump than the more than 100 pools currently holding nuclear waste.

Yucca Mountain was chosen because it is in a desert location far from population centers, and because it is surrounded by federal land.

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress want the project restarted and say that shuttering it wasted billions already spent building the facility.

WHAT IS THE STATUS OF YUCCA MOUNTAIN?

During his campaign in 2008, President Barack Obama promised to block the dump. In 2010, the administration asked the NRC, which was conducting a safety review of the site, to pull its license application.

A commission licensing board has told the administration that it lacked the authority to declare Yucca off limits for the dump. The energy department appealed the licensing board’s decision to the full regulatory commission.

The NRC has not yet resolved its final position on the license issue but has stopped its work on the project.

The nuclear industry sued the Energy Department to suspend a fee mandated by the federal government for managing radioactive waste, and Republican lawmakers in Congress have launched a probe into the decision to stop work on the site.

A GAO report concluded that social and political pressure, not technical problems with the site, led the administration to shutter the project. (For the report, click on r.reuters.com/vah59r)

The report called for an independent regulator to oversee nuclear waste management and said that restarting the project or finding a new location could be expensive.

WHERE IS NUCLEAR WASTE NOW STORED?

Nuclear waste is stored at more than 100 sites around the country.

Most spent fuel rods are stored under at least 20 feet of water in pools near reactors. Fuel that has cooled can be placed in a steel, cylindrical cask, surrounded by inert gas, but it has to have been cooled for least five years. (For a map of U.S. waste sites click on link.reuters.com/but68r)

The nuclear regulator believes spent fuel can be safely stored for 60 years beyond the license of the reactor, giving most reactors about 120 years of safe storage. (r.reuters.com/xah59r)

WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?

The Energy Department appointed the blue ribbon commission to look at options. The group said at a meeting May that the United States should develop temporary storage sites to hold waste for up to 100 years while a permanent burial site is established.

The commission is slated to deliver a draft report by July with final recommendations early in 2012.

France, the United Kingdom and others recycle spent nuclear fuel. The United States developed fuel reprocessing technology decades ago but deemed it too expensive.

Other proposals include building reactors that can convert nuclear byproducts into other, less harmful waste and using nanotechnology or magnetic fields to separate waste elements.

Reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by David Gregorio

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